9/11: The day Virginia politics changed forever – Richmond Times-Dispatch

Editor’s note: To mark the 9/11 anniversary, the Richmond Times-Dispatch asked members of the staff who were here at the time what they remember of that day. Politics columnist Jeff E. Schapiro was then the paper’s chief state government reporter.

Returning from my daily run on the oddly cool, gloriously sunny morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I punched up the local public radio station, expecting to hear the calming strains of classical music.

Instead, there was frantic news that jetliners had slammed into the Pentagon in Northern Virginia and the twin towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. The crash of a fourth plane, in rural Pennsylvania, had yet to be reported. And it would be several hours before these three catastrophes, killing just under 3,000 people, were linked to Islamic jihadists carrying out the deadliest terror attack ever on American soil. 

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These were the first hours of a day that would remake Virginia government and politics.

Republican Mark Earley, left and Democrat Mark Warner debated in Falls Church on Sept. 21, 2001 after pausing their campaigning for governor in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Warner was elected governor on Nov. 6.

As a consequence of the attacks, full-throated campaigns for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and the House of Delegates fell silent. It would be nearly two weeks before the candidates gingerly – and quietly – returned to the stump, largely uncertain what to tell voters and what they might hear from them. Candidates, regardless of party, were in agreement on one thing: That because terrorism had scarred Virginia on a grand scale, the state would have to be ever-vigilant to the threat of more.

The nominees for governor, Democrat Mark Warner and Republican Mark Earley, would rewrite their law-and-order platforms to focus on terrorism and security. Both pledged to create a Cabinet-level office responsible for the homeland. And Warner, who would be elected two months later, selected as the state’s first homeland security director a Republican, former Lt. Gov. John Hager. Warner’s selection of Hager, who had been defeated by Earley for the GOP nomination, was intended to signal that – post 9/11 – thwarting terrorism was, irrefutably, a bipartisan exercise.

9/11: Newsroom mobilized amid tragedy; then a loss hit close to home

That one of the planes went down in Virginia – hitting the often-bustling Pentagon, seat of the defense establishment that since World War II had drawn thousands to Northern Virginia, transforming farmland to suburbs – meant that Gov. Jim Gilmore, a Republican whose four-year term was winding down, would have been among the first state officials briefed on the crash, which killed 184 people aboard the aircraft and inside the Pentagon as well as the five hijackers.

Gilmore Sept. 11

On Sept. 11, 2001 Gov. Jim Gilmore talks to the members of the media in his office at the state Capitol about the terrorist attacks on U.S. cities.

I immediately called Mark Miner, the governor’s press secretary. He said Gilmore was being apprised in real time; that details on deaths, injuries and damage were still murky and that the governor would soon be making a statement. Miner could offer little other than to say I should get to the state Capitol as soon as possible. I arrived at the Jefferson-designed statehouse, immediately noting it was far quieter than usual, with the few people there clustered around the television set at Chicken’s, as the snack bar – then on the ground floor – was known.

With events moving quickly – and federal authorities indicating that these were, indeed, terror attacks – the editors at The Times-Dispatch, five blocks west of the state Capitol, said that the newspaper would do what few, if any, of us had seen the T-D do before: publish an Extra edition. For those of us on the politics beat, including Michael Hardy, who covered the governor’s office, that meant shipping back to the newsroom details from the Gilmore appearance. My recollection is that we would do so by telephone.

The governor, a former prosecutor and U.S. Army intelligence officer who, at the time, was leading a congressionally authorized study of American readiness to terrorism, offered a grim account of the attack on the Pentagon. He reported on the mobilization of state troopers, local police and firefighters, and emergency medical technicians – henceforth, “first responders” – as well as the scramble by area hospitals to treat the dying and injured.

That evening, Gilmore visited hospitals, meeting with local authorities, the families of victims as well as survivors. The next day, he would share details of those encounters – many of them moving, even for Gilmore, not one ordinarily given to public displays of emotion.

Despite the blur of developments on 9/11 – at the state Capitol, in the newsroom and on the campaign trail – one memory remains quite crisp: A telephone conversation that afternoon with my wife, Clare. She said that our son, Felix – then 7 years old and in the second grade – had learned during class of the attack in Manhattan, where his grandmother lived. The boy was very upset, fearing harm had come to a loved one. Though he would soon learn that she was OK, Felix, nonetheless, remained jarred by what had happened 360 miles north of his hometown, Richmond.

9/11 erased many barriers, distance – and the safety it supposedly suggests – being one of them.

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